Can ‘creativity’ be taught?

//Can ‘creativity’ be taught?

The way ideas come to fruition is often mysterious; while we may remember consciously thinking a few things, we are unaware of all the ingredients simmering away in the pot of thought. I like the image of placing a pot on the back boiler on a very low heat and allowing flavours to develop over time. It seems, at least to me, that some of my favourite ideas have emerged in this way.

This article on creativity by Paul Carney appeared in Schools Week a few days ago, criticising my ideas about how creativity works. It says:

[Didau] argues that creativity is a by-product of knowing more; the more stuff we put in, the more we have to be creative with. He claims that we have evolved to find creativity easier than learning secondary knowledge and so it is secondary knowledge we need to teach first before we can be creative.

This is seems a fair approximation. It then tries to demonstrate that “creativity doesn’t work like that,” and that instead of leaving something so important to chance, “it must be taught”. Carney says:

When we study how the world’s greatest innovations came to be we can find familiar patterns. Sometimes a discovery is not made by increasing knowledge, but by accident as in the case of penicillin, or by sheer hard slog and diligence. Innovation often occurs through playfulness such as Delbrück’s “principle of limited sloppiness”, or as Richard Feynman did, by playing with patterns.

Innovation often isn’t about acquiring new knowledge, but by seeing the knowledge you already have from fresh perspectives; or even through conflict and argument such as Galvani and Volta’s famous electricity debates. Sometimes, innovation occurs through a lone genius with incredible insight, but not often. It’s collaboration that usually gets the job done.

The problem is that creativity is a chance happenstance. it is never predictable; if it were it wouldn’t require any special creative process. My argument is that not that creativity is an automatic by-product of knowing more, just that it’s impossible without knowing lots. Finding patterns – and playing with them – is developing knowledge. The discovery of penicillin changed the world because Sir Alexander Fleming, a professor of bacteriology, knew enough to recognise the importance what had happened in his famous petri dish. Similarly, Delbrück’s “principle of limited sloppiness” allows a knowledgeable observer to recognise chance variables. Without sufficient knowledge there is little chance for innovation: seeing the knowledge you have from a fresh perspective is new knowledge. When ideas collide – whether through conflict and argument or deliberate collaboration, new ideas are forged.

Carney suggests “the ability to visualise, to construct complex thoughts and actions is an essential trait of innovation”. Maybe so. But the ability to visualise, to construct complex thoughts and actions is a function of knowledge. No one can visualise something of which they have no awareness and forget constructing a complex thought about something you don’t know much about. My contention is that this just is not possible. The trouble is, experts suffering from the curse of knowledge cannot articulate all that they know. Because their knowledge is tacit, the process of innovation and creativity appears mysterious. Back to the back boiler.

Here’s what I say in Making Kids Cleverer:

Can we provide a set of technical procedures which, if followed, will reliably result in creativity? Probably not. “There is no ‘creative thinking’ just as there is not ‘creative walking’. Creation is a result, a place thinking may lead us.” So says Kevin Ashton, inventor of the ‘internet of things’. We can certainly support the creative impulse and we can provide constraints that force people to be creative in order to overcome the constraint, but most of us want creativity to mean something more than this. Maybe it’s something we need to give children experience of, like riding a bike. Well, we can certainly do that, but that still won’t make them creative. In order to create new ways of thinking or doing, we need to be very knowledgeable about the old ways of thinking or doing. (p. 186)

And later:

All the great minds throughout history that we celebrate as creative were already experts before they saw a new way of thinking or doing. Consider Newton sitting under the apocryphal apple tree waiting for inspiration to fall. He wasn’t just ‘ being creative’ when he formulated his theory of gravity, he was seeing links and connections between the vast store of things he knew about. … Newton had probably read everything there was to read about science up to that point. It’s much easier to arrive at a new way of thinking or seeing when you already know a tremendous amount.

Wonderful scientist as he was, Newton is not noted for his creativity as a dramatist. He’s rarely discussed as a creative politician, military commander or composer. This is because creativity, like the ability to solve problems or think critically, does not transfer between domains. Like every other skill, creativity depends on and is activated by knowledge. In order to be skilled in more than one field you need to be knowledgeable in more than one field. (pp 186-7)

if there was a teachable formula for creativity, we could all be creative geniuses all the time. If creativity – whatever toy believe that to mean – could be taught, it wouldn’t be creativity.]

Instead, let’s acknowledge that the act of creation is a good thing and celebrate children’s efforts to experiment with the new. By all means encourage children to think creatively within subject disciplines, model how ideas can be combined and prompt them to think the unthinkable and the not yet thought. To that end, I really like Dylan Wiliam’s idea that ‘skills’ such as creativity are “best thought of as a way of ensuring that our standards are sufficiently broad”.

2019-01-29T12:34:31+00:00January 29th, 2019|Featured|


  1. David Dunbar January 29, 2019 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    First, I love what you write about; I have been following you for quite awhile both in blogs and books. Thank you.

    “The problem is that creativity is a chance happenstance. it is never predictable; if it were it wouldn’t require any special creative process.”

    I agree, and I have been experimenting for some time now with the concept of precursors that increase the “chance” of creativity happening and developing. One of those concepts is the idea of “serendipity”–whose birthday was yesterday, as it happens. Can you cultivate that? I think you can.

    Looking forward to reading the next book when it arrives.

    David Dunbar

  2. Tom Burkard January 29, 2019 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    I recall visiting a charter school in inner-city Detroit and being extremely impressed that their pupils’ work wasn’t displayed in the corridors or even in the classrooms. I don’t think the word creativity emerged once during the day. The teachers all seemed to have much higher priorities, and having previously lived in Detroit and worked in the auto industry, I could understand why. Their children already had any number of Motown singers to inspire them should they be that way inclined.

    You are far too kind in your final paragraph. Creativity has become something of an obsession with the middle classes, whose children are all but guaranteed of secure and well-paid employment. Those who are not so lucky can ill afford to waste time in pursuit of this chimera, which is indeed a rare beast which seems to appear where least expected.

  3. Mark Featherstone-Witty January 29, 2019 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    This is an energising topic that Ken Robinson, amongst many others, have written serious books about. Since I’ve started four creative and performing arts institutions, primary through to higher education, it’s a topic that that is central and enduringly fascinating … made up of many layers … rarely in some concentrations … and even these layers don’t wholly capture how a creative idea or artifact come into existence. So short feedback is impossible. But repeating a thought, which isn’t mine but a well-know poet’s: if someone created something completely new or fresh, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.

  4. […] Didau has responded to my article in Schools Week saying we cannot leave creativity to chance, it must be taught. Let […]

  5. Mario January 30, 2019 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    Hi David,

    The following quote is from Brad Melhdau, one of the most important innovators in Jazz from the last 30 years. The whole essay is worth reading.

    “Authenticity and originality are both weak tropes because, on their own, they can only account for weak players. True originality, and thus true creativity, never takes place in a historical vacuum; it is always rooted to something that has gone before. I remember observing the phenomenon of rootless “creativity” in my high school jazz band growing up. There were those of us who were listening to jazz and would go on to try to be musicians. Our fledgling attempts at soloing reflected whatever we had absorbed at that point – a little Bird, McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, what have you. Then there were kids in the band who were not going to pursue jazz for their life, had only a passing interest in playing music, and had hardly listened to jazz at all. They would also get a solo feature now and then.

    What did they play? It was sort of like playing scales up and down the horn. What was striking was that they all sounded the same: One would think that with all the freedom that an improvised context could have, they might all play something different. But collectively, the kids who weren’t really listening to jazz actually encompassed a style of sorts, and that style was dictated by their limitation. The limitation was due to the fact that they hadn’t absorbed anything; they hadn’t begun to even mimic like we were. There is a rule here, to gloss on Tolstoy: Rootless players are all alike, but every rooted player is rooted in his or her own way. Yes, there are tons of rooted players who are not original, but as a listener, give me the unoriginal player who has listened to a lot of great music and absorbed it any day to the player who hasn’t absorbed much of anything. This brings us back to the importance of input again: Without input, we have no model for our own style; without learning a language, we have no model to create our own. There is indeed an international style of rootless jazz playing. In the name of creativity, it expresses banality. In its lazy quest for the original, it finds only unoriginality.”



  6. […] Can ‘Creativity’ Be Taught? (The Learning Spy) The problem is that creativity is a chance happenstance. it is never predictable; if it were it wouldn’t require any special creative process. My argument is that not that creativity is an automatic by-product of knowing more, just that it’s impossible without knowing lots. […]

  7. […] round started with a post by David Didau, summarizing a debate between himself and Paul […]

  8. […] knowledge in their respective fields that they then draw on to mix and reshape and experiment with (sometimes by mistake). The outcomes of these fusions and synthesises are what we would call innovations, or moments of […]

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